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The North Korean UNHA International Conflict- Is There a Remedy?

by MT Smith

This post is part of the student blogger project from the summer session of Space Security Law.

MT Smith is from Jacksonville, FL and grew up in a military family, moving around the U.S. He calls Jacksonville, FL and Charlotte, NC home. MT graduated from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication Studies. He then pursued a career in Naval Aviation as a pilot in the US Navy, flying multiple aircraft with his primary platform being the Navy’s E-6B Mercury. His many deployments as an Aircraft Commander and Mission Commander in support of USSTRATCOM’s TACAMO and Looking Glass operations fueled his interests in the arena of Communications and National Security issues as well as Air and Space Law. He is in his second year of law school at The University of Mississippi where he hopes to earn the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law Certificate.

The Outer Space Treaty promotes, among many issues, the peaceful use and exploration of outer space by all. Article I states, “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.”1 For the most part, this standard of outer space use has been effectively and justifiably acted upon by the international community. However, as with almost any standard or law, its limits have been tested by States acting to further their own strategic, and often unlawful, advancements. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), for example, have taken the original context of Article I of the Outer Space Treaty and manipulated their missile testing agenda to conform to the guidelines within. The concern for this vague framework within the treaty is that it seems to leave the door for interpretation wide open to States with hidden agendas, and often leaves the international community scrambling to confront the issue as well as find peaceful means of curtailing such challenges to the Treaty. How these States manipulate the intentions of the Treaty, and how the international community can limit these deceitful strategies are two central issues with maintaining harmony within the international community as well as international safety at home and in the exploration of space activities.

Prior to the 2009 launch of the UNHA-2 launch vehicle, in an article published by the Korean Central News Agency of the DPRK, a spokesman for the Korean Committee of Space Technology claimed, “the DPRK envisages launching practical satellites for communications, prospecting of natural resources and weather forecast, etc. essential for the economic development of the country in a few years to come and putting their operation on a normal footing at the first phase of the state long-term plan for space development.”2 This statement goes deeper than the DPRK’s claimed desire to further their space presence for simple weather forecasts promoting economic development. It is a statement that marries their space technology claims with that of the current Outer Space Treaties “peaceful purposes” stance and “free access to all areas of celestial bodies” standard. This manipulative rhetoric not only seems to buy the DPRK time in their space development program, but makes it difficult for the international community to truly know whether their space programs are being progressed for peaceful purposes or possible illegal missile development. These predicaments are but only a fraction of the overall international dilemma with the vagueness of the Outer Space Treaty. On the backside of the equation is how the international community can not only enforce the Treaty, but find peaceful measures to counter the blatant challenges brought by States with hidden agendas.

With a core theme of the Outer Space Treaty endorsing “peaceful purposes,” methods of enforcement of law and prevention of dangerous motives is often a difficult play for the international community. In an effort to peacefully maintain the intentions of the Treaty while effectively dissuading the manipulation of the Treaty and development of illegal and harmful programs, the difficulty lies in establishing and carrying out an effective platform that conforms to the values established within international law and meets the growing needs of internationally policing conspiratorial States. One such attempt seen was the North Korean Moratorium on Missile Flight Tests between the United States and the DPRK. As a result of the agreement, “The DPRK, upon request by the US and with a view to maintaining positive atmosphere for the DPRK-US high-level talks, agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at Yongbyon and allow the IAEA to monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment while productive dialogues continue.”3 These ceased activities came at the exchange of much needed food based aid for the continued hunger concerns plaguing the DPRK.4 The moratorium did take a positive step forward in both enforcing the law and curbing the development of illegal missile systems. By having inspectors able to access facilities, as well as capping “Pyongyang’s missile capability … verifiable by US early warning satellites,” the agreement seemed to take a peaceful, yet effective stance on enforcement.5 In their effort to dissuade the current regime from challenging the law so as not to lose the critical humanitarian aid its people so desperately needed, another peaceful yet active control measure was in place, once again satisfying many international concerns.

Although the North Korean Moratorium on Missile Flight Tests, on its face, seemed to be a step in the right direction, there were, inevitably, as seen from the results, concerns and loopholes. Although receiving aid for its people, at any given time, the DPRK could launch, and they did in April of 2012 with the launch of UNHA-3. Although, ultimately, the North Korean Moratorium on Missile Flight Tests was short lived, it was not a cause in vain. A House Committee on Foreign Affairs discussed the failed launch of the UNHA-3 and summed up the moratorium as “a noble and justified expense and gesture to the North Korean people, though there’s a challenging path to walk between attempting to keep millions of North Koreans from starving to death while still pressuring the government effectively.”6 The point is, there may never be a precise answer to the questions that plague the international community in regards to peaceful space programs, but there must continue to be global leaders willing to take the initiative to think between the lines and advance effective ideas to the international forefront, for as long as there are treaties defining legal guidelines, there will be States that will continue to advance their national interests above and beyond any international regulation.
2 Preparations for Launch of Experimental Communications Satellite in Full Gear, (February 25, 2009), KCNA.CO.JP,
3 David Wright, North Korean Moratorium on Missile Flight Tests, (March 14, 2012), ALLTHINGSNUCLEAR.ORG,
4 Id.
5 Id.
6 House Committee On Foreign Affairs Convenes to Discuss North Korea’s Recent Failed Rocket Launch and New Leader, ORWELLSHANKY.WORDPRESS.COM, (April 19, 2012),